Today I’m thrilled to welcome local writer Jo Zebedee to The Blank Page! Jo is a Sci-Fi and Fantasy author and knows much more about these genres than I do, so if you have any young writers who are into Sci-Fi/Fantasy, you could pass on these tips to them and introduce them to a local writer at the same time. Thanks Jo for sharing your expertise!
So you wanna write a sci-fi book….? – by Jo Zebedee
Spend time thinking about your world. Daydream, draw pictures of cities, maps or space charts. The basis of speculative fiction (that’s sci-fi, fantasy, horror and all things related) is Worldbuilding. You’re creating something new (even if you set it in the real world, there will be something cool and unreal in it, right?) that you want people to believe in. To do that you need to know so much about your world that it feels real – even if you won’t use all that information in your story.
Try this: Think of story you could set in your school. Next, think about everything you know about your school. You know way more than you need for the story, right?
It’s the same with your imaginary world – the more you know, the more real it will become, and the less likely you are to make a mistake when you’re describing it or setting scenes in it. But you don’t need to feel like you have to get everything about your world into the story; only what’s needed.
Ask ‘what if….?’ That question is at the the centre of most sci fi stories. What if a dude with two hearts became a time traveller who saved Earth? What if a superhero came from another planet and lived on Earth? What if you got left behind on Mars?
I was standing on the beach one day, looking towards Belfast and the two cranes, and wondered what if the aliens invaded Northern Ireland. I kept wondering about that, and then I wrote a book about it (Inish Carraig), which grew bigger but, always, the first ‘what-if’ was central: what if they invaded? How would our world change?
Research. You don’t have to be the greatest scientist in the world to write science fiction. I didn’t do any science A-levels (although I did geography and sometimes have fun with ecology in my stories). Science fiction can be as real or as farfetched as you like. But if you are going to play with science, you will need to do enough research to make things believable. If your character goes to a planet with heavy gravity, for instance, they’ll find it tiring to walk around.
But it’s not just the science you might need to research. It’s the other elements of your story. What if someone gets attacked in your story – do you know where they can be injured and still live? Or, if a character wears perfume in your story, do you know what a certain brand smells like before you mention it? Getting little details wrong can make a reader stop to think about things and that makes it harder to get them to start reading again. It’s best to get it right, if you can, instead.
Enjoy science fiction! Most writers read quite a bit. Through reading they learn how to tell a story and telling a science fiction story, where you are blending lots of different elements, can be tricky. By reading science fiction, you can look at how other writers get their world information into the story, for instance. Most science fiction writers I know are very, very into the genre. They like different parts – some love graphic novels, some are Marvel-addicts, some love Star Wars or Star Trek (not always both), some love comics and some are gamers. It doesn’t matter what you like (no one cares which part of the genre you love and want to geek out about) but knowing the genre will give you confidence when you write your own stuff.
Write! It can be so much fun building the world that it’s easy to keep doing that and forget about the writing. Sometimes, when you have a big world it’s hard to know where to start the story, or how to get the information in. There is an old saying that you need to write a million words to become really confident as a writer – but you have to write them, not think about writing them. They can be very bad words (no one needs to see your early drafts), or very good words. But the most important thing is that you have words.
Get hung up on creating a book Sci-fi uses a lot of different writing platforms and it doesn’t get hung up on being-just-this-type of writer. Some writers, like Margaret Atwood or Jeff Vandermeer, are known for their prose, where someone like Stan Lee is revered for their graphic work. It’s also a big visual medium that does well on television and in films, so there are writing opportunities there, too – and don’t let anyone tell you they’re easier than writing a novel! Graphic novels are popular – and they’re tricky to write. As well as the art skills, you need to learn how to tell a story through dialogue and action, and that’s difficult. Designing an RPG (role playing game) requires writing – the introduction to the world, the little snippets of stories that make a player feel part of it. A lot of this kind of writing is done in partnership, with one person creating the story and another the art to go with it.
Worry about mixing genres. Want to start a heated debate? Ask fans if Star Wars is fantasy or sci fi. Sure, it has a space setting but it’s a save-the-princess fantasy-quest story. The force is a kind of magic but lightsabers use laser beams and need science to do that.
There’s a thin line between science fiction and other genres. Take Alien. It’s horror but it’s also sci fi. That’s absolutely fine. Mashed up genres are fun and they have a wide audience.
Take things too seriously. Sci fi can be a lot of fun. Between designing worlds and creatures, to making the coolest space ship you can imagine, there’s a lot of room to enjoy yourself. The more you enjoy your writing, the more confident you will be and the better the project will become. Enjoy it, if you can – the day I don’t is the day I stop writing.
Jo Zebedee is the author of five science fiction and fantasy books to date with her next book, The Wildest Hunt, due for release by Inspired Quill in 2021. She’s also written a lot of short stories both online and in anthologies. As the chair of Titancon, Belfast’s science fiction and fantasy convention, and founder of Otherworlds NI, who promote sci fi and fantasy writers in Northern Ireland, she is passionate about making the genre accessible to all.